Sonnet 130: by Shakespeare - Summary & Analysis

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Poem Text
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white.
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks,
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any She belied with false compare.

Poem Summary

Line 1
      The subject of "Sonnet 130," as well as Sonnets 127 through 154 of Shakespeare's sequence, is known as the "dark lady" - not only because of the mystery that surrounds her, - but because of her appearance as described in this poem. Certainly, the speaker is mocking the employment of a typical Petrarchan conceit, in which women's eyes were compared to the sun, stars, and other heavenly bodies; such expressions lose their subtlety of meaning with overuse and become cliches. But in refusing to describe his mistress in the expected way, the speaker has also identified her as an individual. Her glance is not light or bright, but deeper and perhaps more profound.

Lines 2-3
      Red coral, used in jewelry, was of a color thought pleasing for lips; even today, "coral" is a common shade of lipstick. Smooth, milky-white skin was also valued for its beauty during Shakespeare's time. As the speaker bluntly proclaims, his mistress's features do not measure up to the typical standards of attractiveness; indeed, his description of her skin as a dull grayish brown sounds like an insult. But is it? Pure whiteness represented virginity. Alternately, this woman's coloring might not just represent her dirtiness, but also her earthiness, and perhaps her natural sexuality (note the play on the word "dun"). There is also the possibility that the mistress is of a darker-skinned race.

Line 4
      The comparison was not quite as unflattering during the Renaissance as during modern times. Threads of beaten gold used in jewelry were the basis of the idea of wires, not the utilitarian metal cords of today. The term "black wires" also does not rule out the possibility that the mistress was of a different ethnicity, such as Asian or African.

Lines 5-6
      Damask is a deep rose color, in addition to a fabric decorated with highly wrought patterns. The "dark lady's" face apparently does not possess the healthy glow of the first, or the luster and richness of the latter.

Lines 7-8
      The idea that "reek" and "stink" are synonyms did not develop until at least a century after Shakespeare wrote this sonnet. Renaissance readers would understand that the mistress's exhaled breath was not as pleasant as some perfumes-probably a very realistic observation, but a surprising departure from the traditional flattering line.

Lines 9-10
      "Her voice is music to my ears": this is not an uncommon cliche even today, though the speaker deliberately shunned its sentiment in this sonnet several centuries ago. Though his judgment sounds harsh, he pays her an unusual compliment in commending her conversational arts-especially during the Renaissance, when women were not considered the intellectual equals of men.

Lines 11-12
      A typical Petrarchan conceit might flatter a female subject by comparing her gait to an immortal's stride. This speaker refuses to compare his mistress with that which he has never seen. As in line 3, her description suggests that she has an earthy quality; to use another cliche, she has "both feet on the ground."

Lines 13-14
      This couplet explains why these lovers will remain a couple, even after 12 lines of frank commentary regarding the woman's shortcomings and imperfections. The "dark lady" and the reader can now be certain that the speaker will not flatter because of habit or tradition; so when he claims that she is precious and exceptional to him, his words ring true. Indeed, he loves her for all her faults, not for what he might have built her up to be. She is unconventional and unpredictable, but so is he in his approach towards romance; her earthiness and his bluntness seem to make a good match.

Critical Analysis

      The sonnets devoted to the "dark lady" run from "Sonnet 127" to "Sonnet 154"; this poem, perhaps the most famous of the sequence, is a no-holds-barred description of one of the most intriguing women in English literature. The question as to who she actually is has intrigued Shakespeare's critics since the sonnets were first published in 1609. Most probably, "the dark lady," along with the "fair youth" and the "rival poet," are characters created for the sonnet sequence, inspired partially by fictional characters and real-life acquaintances. "Sonnet 130" provides no further clues as to her identity, but paints a verbal portrait of the "dark lady" that is as unconventional and frank as the speaker's proclamation of his love for her. In refusing to rely on conceits to describe her features, the speaker turns his back on poetic tradition; consequently, he describes a person who is a unique individual-whether or not she only existed on paper. Though his honesty may seem painful at times, the speaker's last two lines reveal the depth of his love for this special woman.

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